Hotspot Shield is a popular VPN with just enough interesting and unusual features to help it stand out from the crowd.
The core service has a sizeable network of 1,800+ servers across 80+ countries and 115 cities. All servers are P2P-friendly, and built-in blocking of malicious and phishing sites helps keep you safe online.
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There are apps for Windows, Mac, Android and iOS, and support for setting up the service on Linux, Smart TVs and routers.
There’s no WireGuard support, but Hotspot Shield’s own Catapult Hydra protocol (now officially known as just ‘Hydra’) delivers decent performance, and you can use OpenVPN or IKEv2 in some situations.
The service supports from 5 to 25 simultaneous connections, depending on your plan.
Hotspot Shield also includes bonus security apps. Exactly what and how many apps you get seems to depend on where you are located. The order page says there are four apps, but our online account gave us access to two: a spam call blocker (Hiya) and a password manager (1Password.)
Hotspot Shield pricing
Hotspot Shield’s range starts with a very restrictive free plan: it has a 2Mbps speed limit, one location only (US) and a 500MB daily data allowance. It’s useful as a way to check out the apps, but that’s about it.
The paid VPN starts at $12.99 billed monthly, dropping to $7.99 on the annual plan to protect up to five devices.
That’s at the high-end of the normal VPN price range. If you’ll use the antivirus, call blocker or password manager, it still looks like a reasonable deal. But if you only need the VPN, most vendors charge around $3 to $5 for annual products, and even less for long-term contracts (Private Internet Access offers a three-year plan covering up to 10 devices for $2.19 a month).
Hotspot Shield does have one handy option in the Family plan, which gets you coverage for five people, with five devices each, for only $19.99 billed monthly, or $11.99 on the annual plan.
If you’ll use all those licenses, that translates to $2.40 per user per month, for the VPN, plus the antivirus, spam call blocker and password manager.
There’s no Bitcoin payment option, unfortunately, but you can use a card or PayPal, and if anything goes wrong later you’re protected by an unusually generous 45-day money-back guarantee.
Understanding a VPN’s security usually starts with looking at its protocol support, encryption and authentication details. This can be hugely complicated, but just seeing that a service supports a secure protocol like OpenVPN gives some reassuring feedback about its safety.
Hotspot Shield’s Hydra protocol is more difficult to figure out, because it’s the company’s own proprietary technology. Unlike the open source OpenVPN, WireGuard or ExpressVPN’s Lightway, the code isn’t available to the public, so experts can’t check for privacy issues.
Hotspot Shield does explain a little of how Hydra works, though. Apparently it’s based on TLS (Transport Layer Security) 1.2, with AES-256 and AES-128 encryption, 2048-bit RSA certificates for server authentication and keys exchanged via Elliptic Curve Diffie-Hellman (ECDHE) for perfect forward secrecy (keys last for only one session, with new ones generated next time). That’s not entirely leading-edge, but it’s more than enough to keep you safe.
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There is still some logging, the policy explains, including:
- ‘the duration of VPN sessions and the bandwidth consumed’
- ‘the domains that have been accessed by our users, but on an anonymized basis such that we do not know which user accessed which domain (we also aggregate this information on an approximately monthly basis)’
- ‘device hashes, which are used to identify devices and associate them with other data we collect… Device hashes are not linked to VPN browsing activity’
- ‘we do collect and use IP addresses [in the context of] protecting against fraud in connection with financial transactions with us, [and] deriving non-identifiable items of information, such as your approximate geographic location and information about your internet service provider or carrier’
This gives some scope for building a profile on how you use the service. For example, the company could keep a record of the time and date of every session, the device used, your approximate location and how much data you transferred.
Hotspot Shield clearly says none of this information can be used to link your account to any VPN browsing activity, which is good to hear. But, unlike some competitors, the company hasn’t put itself through any form of public security or privacy audit, so there’s no confirmation of these privacy promises. We’re left to take Hotspot Shield’s words on trust.
Hotspot Shield’s apps include a kill switch to block your internet connection if the VPN drops, preventing IP leaks. It’s a very useful feature, but not all kill switches deliver on their promises, so we were keen to run some tests.
Our initial checks showed very positive results. Even with the kill switch turned off, the app didn’t leak our real IP address when we changed locations, and our IP address was exposed for typically no more than a couple of seconds if the connection dropped. When we turned the kill switch on, our IP address wasn’t visible at all.
We tried stress testing the app to see how it would handle extreme situations. The app uses multiple local TCP connections to manage the VPN tunnel for instance; if we forced these to close, would that break the app?
Nope, it didn’t crash, leak our IP or even raise an alert, but just reopened the connections and continued as before. That’s a sign of very smart engineering, and a strong indicator that the app can cope with just about anything.
Hotspot Shield makes big claims about the performance of its Catapult Hydra protocol, but does it live up to the hype? We checked out the service with SpeedTest’s website and command line app, along with a number of other benchmarking sites to find out.
Tests from a UK data center revealed Hydra speeds of around 300-310Mbps. That’s almost identical to the 280-300Mbps we saw last time, and a good indication that these are reliable figures.
We switched to IKEv2, and speeds dropped a little to 200-210Mbps.
Although this will be enough for some users, it’s a long way behind the top competition. VPNs with WireGuard typically get 500Mbps and more, and providers such as CyberGhost, Hide.me, IPVanish, Mullvad and TorGuard all reached 800Mbps and more.
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Netflix and streaming
Connecting to a VPN can help you bypass all kinds of online restrictions, from streaming services which block content in specific countries, to nations such as China which block a host of popular sites.
Measuring a VPN’s unblocking abilities is difficult as there are so many factors involved, but we try to get a feel for its effectiveness by checking how the service works with BBC iPlayer, Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and Disney Plus.
Hotspot Shield provides specialist streaming servers which should make this easy (so there’s no need to try five different US servers to find one which gets you into Netflix), but to confirm this works reliably, we test each service using three separate logins and IP addresses.
BBC iPlayer has the technology to detect and block many VPNs, but Hotspot Shield bypassed that for all our test logins and allowed us to stream whatever content we needed.
Netflix is one of the most difficult streaming sites to access with a VPN, but Hotspot Shield successfully unblocked US content for us. (That’s particularly good news, because it failed in our last review.)
The successful run continued with our last two tests, as Hotspot Shield got us into Disney Plus and Prime Video.
Like most VPNs, Hotspot Shield doesn’t like to boast about its P2P support, but pay close attention to the website and you’ll discover some good news.
The service fully supports P2P on all servers, so once you’ve connected with any of the clients (Windows, Mac, Android or iOS), you’re ready to start downloading.
We don’t like to take website claims for granted, so we verified Hotspot Shield’s torrent-friendliness by successfully downloading torrents while connected to the US, UK and Japan.
Search the support site for the keywords P2P or torrent and you won’t find anything at all, but there are a few simple guides for beginners in the Resources and Blog sections (try searching here), including advice on why you might want to use a VPN for torrenting, and pointers on how to download torrents anonymously.
Whatever method you’re using, Hotspot Shield doesn’t have any bandwidth limits or restrictions, so you should be able to use the service as much as you like.
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Sign up for Hotspot Shield and you’re redirected to a web console where you’ll find download links for Windows, Mac, Android, Android TV, iOS and Linux apps.
In a neat touch, you can have the site send a text to your mobile with the relevant download link.
It’s all very easy to use. The Windows VPN client set itself up much like any other application, while the mobile apps and Chrome extension are available in the relevant app stores. Log in with the username and password you chose during signup and you’re ready to explore the service.
Hotspot Shield’s Windows app opens with a dark panel displaying the current default location, a large On/Off button, and a tiny sidebar with more options. There are more buttons and settings than most apps, but it’s not difficult to use, and even total VPN newbies are likely to be exploring the app’s features right away.
Tapping the On button got us connected in a reasonably speedy 4-5 seconds. Some VPNs are faster – IVPN’s WireGuard connections can be up and running in around a second – but others can take 10 to 20 seconds, sometimes even longer.
Once connected, a map appears showing your new virtual location, while other panels display a host of connection details: your server IP address, load and latency, the amount of data used today, your current transfer speeds and the name of your local network (handy as a reminder when you’re connecting to wireless hotspots, say). This is a little cluttered and could intimidate not-so-technical users, but if you’re not interested in the stats, they can all be safely ignored. Just hit the Disconnect button when you’re done, and they’ll all disappear.
Clicking the current location displays a list of other countries and cities you can choose from. There are no server load figures or ping times to help with your decision, though, and no Favorites system to group commonly-used locations, a surprise considering the rest of the app looks so feature-packed.
Hotspot Shield’s settings dialog is more capable, with a choice of protocols (IKEv2 or Hydra), and switches to run the client when Windows starts, prevent IP leaks, and enable a kill switch to block internet access if the VPN drops.
There’s a handy bonus feature in the client’s ability to automatically connect to Hotspot Shield when you access unsafe Wi-Fi hotspots, safe hotspots or all networks. That option isn’t available nearly as often as we’d like, especially on Windows, and it’s good to see it here.
The ‘Smart VPN’ feature is an extended split tunneling option which enables choosing both websites and apps that won’t have their traffic routed through the VPN. If a website doesn’t work as usual when the VPN is on, or perhaps gaming performance is affected, add them to the Bypass list and they’ll use your regular connection instead of the VPN tunnel.
Support for keyboard shortcuts is a small usability plus. Ctrl+Shift+C connects and then disconnects, for instance, while Ctrl+Shift+V displays and enables choosing a virtual location.
This all worked well for us, but if you run into difficulties, a Support page includes links to open the FAQ, Live Chat and ‘Leave a message’ pages on the Hotspot Shield website.
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Hotspot Shield’s Mac app is a stripped-back version of the Windows edition, with many features dropped and some unexpected and unnecessary differences.
The opening panel has the same color scheme and visual style, for instance, but there’s no ‘Auto’ option to automatically choose a location, no tooltips to explain the interface, and the sidebar has text options rather than icons.
The Mac location picker uses a conventional list, rather than the tiles used on the Windows app, and there are no Streaming or Gaming icons to access specific server types more quickly.
The Settings box is distinctly short on options. You can choose Hydra or IKEv2 protocols, and optionally launch and connect when your Mac starts. But there’s no kill switch, no Smart VPN split tunneling, no configurable IP leak protection, and no keyboard shortcuts. And although the Mac app can be set up to raise an alert if you access insecure Wi-Fi, it doesn’t have the Windows option to automatically connect.
If you only need the VPN basics, and you never use the Windows app, this may not matter very much. But for everyone else, the interface inconsistencies and serious shortage of features make this a poor Mac choice. Most providers do a far better job with their desktop apps.
Android and iOS apps
We hoped Hotspot Shield’s mobile apps would bring a more consistent look and feel to the range. But that’s not quite how things worked out.
The Android app is the pick of the two. It can automatically choose the best location, and has Quick Access links to easily choose Streaming or Gaming servers. It also sports a link to servers optimized for ‘Social networks and Chat’, something we didn’t see on the Windows app.
There are some useful settings. You can have the app connect when your device starts, or the app starts, or when you access unsecured Wi-Fi. There’s Hotspot Shield split tunneling, too, though only for apps: it doesn’t work with websites. However, the app doesn’t have a kill switch, and you can’t change protocols.
Hotspot Shield’s iOS app looks good and is easy to use, but it’s also so basic that we’re left wondering if the developer forgot to finish it.
The interface looks much like the Android version, for instance, but there are no stats displayed when you connect. And although it has Quick Access Streaming and Gaming links in some locations, there aren’t any in the US. On the Windows desktop we could expand the list of 25 US servers and click Streaming for the best unblocking choice. Here, you’re left to choose locations manually.
And the settings? You can choose the Hydra or IKEv2 protocols, but that’s about it.
These aren’t bad apps – far from it. They’re easy to use, for the basics at least, speeds are okay, and they unblock almost anything. But Hotspot Shield hasn’t done a great job of transferring the best Windows app features to the rest of the range, and the inconsistencies across platforms could be very frustrating.
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Many VPNs offer browser extensions, but they’re usually very basic, stripped-back tools with little more functionality than a Location list and a Connect button. That’s not the case with Hotspot Shield, though – its Chrome extension is stuffed with features, and more powerful in some ways than the desktop and mobile apps.
The opening interface gives no indication of this, as it looks much like the other clients: a mostly empty dark panel with a Connect button in the middle, and barely anything else. Point, click, and you’re connected.
It’s a near-instant connection, too, because the browser extension is a simple proxy system which protects your browser traffic only. That won’t work in every situation, but if you’re mostly interested in unblocking websites, it could serve you very well.
Tap the Configuration button top-right and you’re able to set a default server which you’d like Hotspot Shield to access when you first connect, or have it automatically connect to the nearest server.
There are a bunch of privacy extras, starting with ad, cookie, tracker, malware and WebRTC blockers, along with a handy option to ignore any resources you’re accessing which are hosted within your local network.
Perhaps the best additions are the Auto Protect and Bypass lists, at least once you’ve found them (they’re in Chrome’s Hotspot Shield Settings page rather than the extension console). Add websites which require the VPN to Auto Protect and Hotspot Shield automatically turns itself on whenever you try to access them. Add websites to the Bypass list and Hotspot Shield directs them through your regular connection, rather than the VPN tunnel, which is handy for sites that don’t work with a VPN, or which need to see your real location (a streaming platform which is only available in your country, say).
This isn’t quite as powerful as it looks. The ad blocker isn’t as capable as the market leaders, for instance, and doesn’t have any settings or options to customize how it functions. Still, overall it works very well, and the Chrome extension is better than most of the proxy competition.
Although it’s barely advertised on the website, Hotspot Shield also has a Firefox extension. This lagged a little behind the Chrome build in our last review, and for example didn’t include Sword Mode for feeding web trackers fake browsing information, but recent updates have fixed that, and the extensions now appear identical.
There’s a lot to like here, and both the Chrome and Firefox builds are welcome additions to the Hotspot Shield line-up. We’d like to see the company develop them further, though. The Chrome extension’s privacy tools have been flagged as ‘beta’ for a long time; it’s time to get them finished, and begin thinking about what comes next.
If Hotspot Shield isn’t working for you, the various apps give you instant access to advice on common issues by embedding documents from the website. As usual, if your issue is more complex, you can head off to the support website for more in-depth guidance.
A web-based Support Center organizes its articles by platform, as well as categories like Payments and Subscriptions, Manage Account and Common Issues. There is some useful information on the website that you won’t always get elsewhere (release notes, for instance), but most articles can’t match the depth you’ll get with providers like ExpressVPN.
The ‘Why is my speed slow when I’m connected?’ Android article, for instance, suggests ‘it’s normal to experience speed reduction from 30-50% when using any VPN service’ (we’re not so sure about that).
The article only contains a single sentence explaining how you might fix the problem: ‘Sometimes switching the connection OFF and ON a few times can help the app search for servers that are physically closer to you and potentially faster.’ That’s the best they have to offer? Really? (There are other articles with more detail on this, but that’s no help if you find this one first.)
The vast bulk of the article – 330+ words and no less than 15 screenshots – explains how to take a speed test and send it to Support.
Fortunately, if you can’t find an answer in the knowledgebase, you’re able to get in touch with the support team via live chat or email.
We tried live chat – the chat window quickly appeared, reported that we were first in the queue, and we were talking to a friendly and knowledgeable agent in under a minute.
There’s room for improvement on the support site, then, but many users should quickly find the core details they need, and the quality support team are on hand to help with anything else.
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Hotspot Shield review: Final verdict
Hotspot Shield is a likeable VPN with plenty of apps, some interesting features, and good live chat support for help if you need it. But it has issues, too – speeds can’t match WireGuard, there are some privacy concerns, plus the apps aren’t consistent across platforms – and overall, the service can’t quite match the best of the competition.
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